Something less than a rediscovered masterpiece, but far more compelling than a mere theatrical curio, Tennessee Williams’ “Not About Nightingales” receives what is likely a definitive staging in the world premiere production now on display at Houston’s Aerial Theater. A joint effort of Great Britain’s Royal National Theater and Moving Theater and Houston’s Alley Theater, the production is an altogether worthy and often stirring effort, despite the inevitable questions it raises about whether Williams would have fully approved of the enterprise.
Loosely based on a real-life hunger strike at a Philadelphia prison in the late 1930s, “Nightingales” is very much the work of a young playwright struggling to find his voice. Williams was 27 when he wrote the 1938 drama, which reflects the influences of Clifford Odets, Bertolt Brecht and, to a large degree, socially conscious Warner Bros. melodramas of the era.
If you pay close attention — and you’re intent on finding such things — you can hear faint echoes of themes that Williams would later develop with far greater poetic subtlety in “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” One can only speculate how prominently these echoes would have resounded if the play had been produced in the 1930s, or at any other point in Williams’ lifetime.
Quite possibly a very different play would have evolved during the normal course of rewrites and readjustments that come with rehearsals and out-of-town try-outs. In interviews, director Trevor Nunn has expressed his understandable reluctance to tinker with the original text. Still, one is left with the impression that “Nightingales” will forever be a work-in-progress, an early promise not entirely fulfilled.
Which is not to say this isn’t the best of all possible “Nightingales.” Working with a large and prodigiously talented Anglo-American ensemble, Nunn offers a vibrant and gripping evening of theater. To be sure, a few stereotypical characters and some hokey melodramatic flourishes come perilously close to camp, and may have seemed dated even in 1938. But this production is more than the sum of its parts.
Corin Redgrave dominates the show with the deftly variegated bombast of his performance as Boss Whalen, the tyrannical and shamelessly corrupt warden of a prison that, in many ways, seems a precursor of Nazi concentration camps. (There are several pointed references to the flourishing of fascism in Europe.)
When he isn’t cooing sweet words over the phone to his infant daughter, or robustly harassing his beautiful young secretary, Boss Whalen exerts his iron-willed control over inmates who are inching toward rebellion. Smugly confident of his ability to crush any uprising, he threatens to banish troublemakers to “Klondike” — a hellhole where steam-belching radiators raise temperatures above 150 degrees.
Canary Jim (Finbar Lynch), the antihero of the piece, is a cynical but sensitive trustee who, years earlier, was beaten into submission by Boss Whalen. Now content to keep a low profile while hoping for parole, Jim works for the warden as an all-purpose go-fer and occasional snitch, making him a pariah among his fellow inmates.
To survive as a “model prisoner,” he has hardened his heart and expanded his vocabulary. (After his release, he promises himself, he will expose the harsh conditions inside the prison.) But the more he’s around Eva (Sherri Parker Lee), the more he’s willing to tell her about the innermost yearnings of his caged soul.
Things get a bit too strenuously poetic in a symbol-laden scene that has Eva reciting Keats to the convict, and Jim gruffly insisting that, when he becomes a writer, he will write about life, “not about nightingales.” But the relationship between the two characters is credibly and affectingly developed. For this, Lee (one of three Alley Theater members in the production) and Lynch deserve considerable credit.
Meanwhile, back in Cell Block C, hardcore con Butch O’Fallon (James Black, another Alley regular) enforces his own form of influence over the prisoners. Long past worrying about reprisals, he leads the inmates in a hunger strike to protest the awful food and inhuman living conditions. Black plays this ticking time-bomb with the cunning belligerence of a streetwise survivor and the swaggering sarcasm of a young James Cagney. (The script practically demands that Black underscore the Cagney connection — O’Fallon repeatedly sings “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” the theme song of “Public Enemy.”)
Fluidly shifting scenes in cinematic fashion across the traverse configuration of Richard Hoover’s metallic prison set, Nunn sustains dramatic momentum even during scenes of poignant intimacy. Hoover and costume designer Karyl Newman have drained all colors from this “Nightingale” — even from the American flag in Whalen’s office — to reinforce the heightened realism of Nunn’s approach. (The stylization also recalls the look of Warner Bros. prison dramas of the ’30s.)
To accommodate Hoover’s set, the Alley Theater is presenting “Not About Nightingales” in the Aerial Theater, a downtown Houston concert venue that’s usually reserved for the likes of Savage Garden and the Backstreet Boys.
Partly as a result, the production is locked into a run that concludes July 3 . Is there life after Houston for this early work by one of America’s greatest playwrights? Possibly. It remains to be seen, however, if the drama will continue to generate appreciative interest in the years ahead, after the novelty of its rediscovery has faded.